- The Many Histories of Books in the Early American Republic
An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840, edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, is the second volume in the ambitious and critically acclaimed five-volume A History of the Book in America series. A monumental scholarly achievement that seamlessly blends synthesis with innovative archival work, An Extensive Republic is broken into six sections and twelve chapters authored by thirty-two leading scholars from an impressive range of disciplines that cover topics including the book trade, political culture, education, religious publishing, literature, and visual culture. The structure reflects the interdisciplinarity of a field that spans centuries, continents, and oceans. Given the immensity of the project, the editors masterfully weave the essays together in a series of introductions. Gross frames the expansive scope of An Extensive Republic in his fifty-page introduction that, since its publication in 2010, has become an important state-of-the-field essay. Meanwhile, Kelley curates each of the six sections, bringing the essays into conversation with one another and the broad themes introduced by Gross.
As Gross points out in the introduction, An Extensive Republic "charts the expansion of print culture in a new nation rapidly gaining in population and spreading across space" (1). The "extensive republic" was just [End Page 537] that: a vast geographical terrain that, at times, grew rapidly in population and expanded in territory in the period between 1790 and 1840. While acknowledging that print "was intimately involved with the leading developments of the age" such as suffrage, the development of political parties, industrialization and urbanization, evangelical culture, and education, Gross suggests that print culture in the early republic was nevertheless resoundingly local (5). An Extensive Republic challenges the notion that the early republic was "an 'Age of Print'" that witnessed printers and booksellers overcoming "limitations of localism, scarcities of capital and labor, and barriers of space," thereby creating a "national print culture" (3–4).1 Instead, Gross insists that the book trade thrived locally and that a few well-connected booksellers operated a robust regional distribution, but few could claim a national reach for their business. Rather, he suggests that "the print culture of the new nation was at once local and cosmopolitan but hardly national," echoing Trish Loughran's provocative argument (6).2 It is difficult to criticize such a comprehensive and far-reaching book. But despite its many virtues, An Extensive Republic tends to overstate the argument that printing and publishing was decentralized and fragmented in the early republic. While it is true that New York, Philadelphia, or Boston could not match London's Paternoster Row in terms of overall production, they were also far from provincial backwaters in being able to meet the demands of a growing, and expanding, population.
The Revolution helped democratize reading and the dissemination of knowledge and gave rise to what Richard D. Brown calls "the ideology of an informed citizenry," as printers spread beyond the eastern port cities into the Appalachian region after 1783 (59). Brown argues that the [End Page 538] American Revolution produced "unanticipated changes in how Americans produced, disseminated, and employed the printed word" (58). The relationship between the public, politics, and the press during the Revolution was far more complicated, however. While patriots embraced a whiggish hostility to state-controlled media, they also persecuted Loyalists, destroying their presses and silencing opposition. Yet, the press became an essential part of American civic life in the new nation, a vital cog in the dissemination of information. By the early republic, there was "unanimous support" that the press should publish "the truth about government" without fear of retribution or even prosecution, a sentiment that, as recent events have shown, is now under fire in the United States (59).3
Changes in the trade, and how men and women worked the presses, bound the...